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Friday, August 17, 2012

American Airline Ignorance This Time

It is the height of the summer travel season. This is also when tempers get short and grumpy business men and women are deeply annoyed by people who are unfamiliar with the rituals of flying. This is also the time of year when flight crews are less tolerant than usual. I get why flight crews are short tempered. They are overwhelmed, overworked, under paid, and operate thoughtlessly on remote. They rely heavily on routine. Upset the routine and you are nothing but trouble thus any passenger out of the norm represents work they do not have the time to do much less think about.  As one who is obviously out of the norm I have been the brunt of much abuse on the part of flight crews. Abuse here meaning I have experienced a stunning disregard for the fact I am a human being and cannot get on and off a plane independently. My existence I assure you is a giant problem from a flight crew and from a larger airline industry viewpoint.  There is a deeply ingrained bias against any person out of the norm whose existence cannot be turned into a profit margin. I cannot speak for others but I can assert that in my experience airlines are hostile to any effort to make travel for people with a disability hassle free.

Given the above I was not at all surprised to read about Carly Fleischmann, a 17 year old with autism. Last week on her way home to Toronto from Los Angeles a flight attendant insisted she turn off her iPad before the plane took off. This is standard procedure. But Ms. Fleischmann uses her iPad to communicate--it is her primary means of communication. The iPad is in her words "her voice". It does not take much thought or familiarity with disability to realize Ms. Fleischmann needed her iPad. The word here is need. Think common sense--this is not a typical situation and requires a modicum of thought. Ms. Fleischmann has autism, it is her means of communication. This was made clear an yet the flight attendant refused to accommodate her.  And here in lies the inherent problem with the notion of "reasonable accommodations". The people making those decisions are largely ignorant or in this case hostile. Ms. Fleischmann wrote:

I need to ask a question of all of you. If a flight attendant came up to your child and ducked taped there moth shut for take off that includes the minute the safty video starts to the minute the plane taxis to the runway and than getting permission to take off. Would you be ok with that? Or If some one who was deaf had the stewardess come and than handcuffed that persons hand to a chair. Would you be out raged as a society? My augmentative device is my mouth and my hands. I take my iPad to the washroom to my bed and everywhere I go. I am not playing games on it I am SPEAKING with it. Why am I looked at like I dont have the same rights!

American Airlines messed with the wrong person. Ms. Fleischmann took to twitter and Facebook to voice her complaints. Apparently Ms. Fleischmann is well-known. She has been featured on television programs and has 42,000 fans on Facebook and 26,000 twitter followers. The airline response is exactly what I would expect. They defend the flight attendant who was following U.S. Department of Transportation regulations and regret any discomfort Ms. Fleischmann may have experienced.  Ah, just what the world needs--a strictly legal reply.

It is Ms. Fleischmann's last line quoted above that always has me shaking my head--Why am I looked at like I don't have the same rights? This is a question I have been pondering for three decades.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bad to Good in 50 Yards

I am in Ontario and had an interesting morning. I have been to Ontario a number of times this year. I am learning |Canada has a differnt cultural response to disability. Generally speaking, I have found Ontario residents to be far more tolerant than my fellow New Yorkers. By tolerant I mean I am not accosted as frequently in Ontario than I am in New York. In the last few months I am struck by the nuimber of people I see with a disability doing ordinary things in Ontario. every day I see a person with a disability out and about. For instance, I saw a woman using a power wheelchair and holding the hand of the man next to her. A child was getting a free ride on the back of her wheelchair. I was thrilled to see this normalcy--just parents out for a walk with their child. As passed this family what I saw only got better. On the woman's lap was another young child. This truly made my day as I rarely see parents with a disability. Regardless, fast forward to today. I am leaving a local supermarket and an elderly man looks at me and says "Bugger me, your life must really suck.".  I just stared and did not reply. I consider myself lucky as the follow up line was not forthcoming--such lines are always even more more demeaning. I drove all of 50 yards to a gas station to fill up my tank. As I am getting out of the car and putting my wheelchair together a young guy at the opposite pump asks me "How do you like it?" I reply "The wheelchair or the car? This is greated with a healthy chuckle and he says "the car". We engage in a typical male discussion about cars--model type, year, engine size, reliability etc. In short, it was an ordinary conversation.

The above anecdote makes me realize just how uneven the response to disability can be. On the one hand I had an elderly man demean me. It was likely not his intent and he obviously had an antiquated view of disability. He could also fear disability. Given his age,  if he lives long enough he will have a disability of some sort. In contrast the young guy I met did not even deem my wheelchair and paralysis worthy of mention much less disacussion. The guy just really liked my car. He was far more interested in the sort of engine my car  had and we wondered why more diesal cars are not sold in North America. The startling social dichotomy I experienced within 50 yards and less than five minutes reveals the inherent difficulty in assessing the social impact of disability. The elderly man clearly accepted a medical model of disability. The young man in contrast did not consider my disability worth a mention. Age is surely a factor. But I am not going to blast all elderly people--I have met many older folks with a nuanced view of disability. I have met young biggots as well. I am not sure what to make of my experience but do know my life is never dull or that I can never truly be anaonymous.